MSC certification of bluefin tuna fishery before stocks have recovered sets dangerous precedent

Posted on
31 July 2020

Rome, Italy - The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), has just announced its first eco-certification of an Atlantic bluefin tuna fishery, while admitting it will take a minimum of five years for the population numbers of the species to return to healthy levels [1]. WWF opposes the certification, believing it will hinder the full recovery of one of the world’s most valuable fish stocks.
After a two-year consultation and an objection filed by WWF, the adjudicator did not uphold the objections against the MSC certification for bluefin tuna granted to a Japanese fishery. Nonetheless, thanks to WWF’s scientific evidence, the certification includes the condition that by 2025 the fishery will need to prove that the stock reached sustainability level [2]. This confirms WWF’s concern that the certification is premature and could put the long-overdue recovery of the bluefin tuna stock at risk.
Commenting on the announcement, Giuseppe Di Carlo, Director of WWF Mediterranean Marine Initiative, said: 
“Certify today and aim for sustainability in 2025. This does not reflect the rigorous certification standards we would expect to be applied when assessing one of the most valuable fish in the ocean, which was once harvested to the brink of extinction. MSC certification of bluefin tuna is an alarming signal that the result is driven by industry demand rather than scientific evidence of sustainability.
“Consumers in Japan will have MSC-labelled bluefin tuna that is not sustainable and a French tuna fishery is expected to receive the same certification soon. This may be a dangerous trend that can threaten the full recovery of bluefin tuna and our possibility of restoring ocean health globally by 2030 [1].”
WWF and other NGOs had provided extensive scientific evidence proving the stock is not yet being fished within sustainable limits. Control Union Pesca, the accredited Conformity Assessment Body (CAB), failed to apply the best available science and overestimated the sustainability level of the bluefin tuna stock, resulting in scores that supported the certification of the fishery (Principle 1 of MSC Certification). In addition, WWF was able to prove a dangerous lack of impartiality of the CAB vis-a-vis the fishery client, which skewed the evaluation. WWF is closely following the ongoing certification process for the French bluefin tuna fishery.

The result of this objection confirms WWF’s long-held belief in the need to reform the MSC standard and assurance system. As the world's oceans bear increasing pressure, the MSC must ensure that its standard stays consistent with current science and global best practice. Specifically, WWF has been advocating for CABs to conduct an impartial and objective assessment, independent of their clients. CABs must use sound science and specific knowledge to justify all scoring, and where data is lacking, they must adopt the precautionary principle as the basis for decisions. The case of the bluefin tuna demonstrates that we are far from reaching this approach. In addition, the objections procedure must include the opportunity for independent scientific review of a CAB’s scoring decision and justifications where there is clear controversy and/or competing scientific analysis. 

“Consumers and retailers need to be able to have confidence in the MSC-certified label. Unfortunately, we are forced to question the appropriateness of that label for a growing list of fisheries, and now even for bluefin tuna,” said John Tanzer, Oceans Lead for WWF. “We have spent two years engaged in a process to strengthen the assurance mechanisms and help the MSC reliably and consistently deliver on its promise of seafood from healthy stocks and a healthy marine environment. We are disappointed with the end result. WWF will not be recommending the purchase of MSC-certified bluefin to consumers.”

[1] Final decision by the Independent Adjudicator published on 30 July 2020, here

Stefania Campogianni, Communications Manager, WWF Mediterranean Marine Initiative,, +39 346 3873237

Notes for the editor
[1] Final decision by the Independent Adjudicator published on 30 July 2020, here
[2] Tuna appears to play an underestimated role in maintaining the balance of zooplankton and phytoplankton that are the foundation of ocean life. Plankton needs the nitrogen from the body processes of these super predators to build their own proteins and sugars through photosynthesis, from atmospheric carbon and sunlight. They bind some of this carbon in their own bodies and, when they die, they sink to the bottom of the ocean, a cycle that plays an important role in regulating the ocean’s temperature and the Earth’s climate. In the Mediterranean, the sardines and anchovies that are fed to caged bluefin are, in turn, overfished. Depleting these prey stocks is literally starving the ocean megafauna that maintains and sustains a healthy ocean. Read more here and here

More about the status of bluefin tuna and IUU fishing: WWF’s concern over the status of bluefin tuna stock is further confirmed by the ongoing illegal fishing activities and irregularities happening in many countries across the Mediterranean. WWF is currently following the infringement procedure launched by the EU Commission against Malta for the irregular transfer of 3,500 tunas regularly caught by Italian and French fisheries and that are being trapped in carrier cages for almost a year. WWF is requesting the immediate release of tunas before they die or get smuggled. A large illegal trade of bluefin tuna worth over €12 million per year was also discovered in 2018 by Interpol  that involved various fishing companies and distributors between Malta, Spain, and other EU countries.
The objection process
  • On January 15, WWF submitted a Notice of Objection (NoO) against the proposed certification. 
  • On January 24 the Independent Adjudicator (IA) accepted WWF’s NoO with “a reasonable prospect of success”. WWF media release
  • On February 24, the CAB responded to WWF’s NoO and a consultation period among the parties was started. At the end of the consultation (April 15), a number of issues remained unsolved and WWF decided to proceed to adjudication. WWF media release
  • On April 22 the Independent Adjudicator (IA) issued a notice and set the virtual hearing on June 1-2. 
  • On June 1 and 2 the virtual hearing took place and WWF joined it. WWF Media release and Guardian article
  • On June 26, the IA issued a decision to remand the determination of the CAB with respect to the Performance Indicator (PI) 1.1.1b (state of the stock in relation to MSY) which was one of the main arguments put forward by WWF in the objection process. 
  • On July 17, the CAB will submit a determination for the above PI.
  • Objectors, including WWF, will have the possibility to comment until July 24 before the IA will take a final decision.
  • 30 July, final decision.